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The Role of the Behaviourist

Are we really aware of the true welfare state of the animals we work with?

Hazel Shimmin KCAI(CD), MSc

Hazel has worked professionally with animals for over 30 years, predominantly dogs and horses.  She has lectured at a University Centre on various aspects of animal welfare and behaviour and worked self-employed as both a Riding Instructor and Dog Behaviourist.  She is currently employed by Holly House Vets in Leeds as their full time Animal Behaviourist where she takes cases on referral from other vets, as well as in-house cases.  She is a qualified Riding Instructor, Dog Trainer and Behaviourist and has an MSc in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare from Newcastle University. 

In order to achieve good welfare, there are three recognised key areas to consider; the physical state, the behavioural state and the psychological state.  All are interlinked and should not be taken separately, but are we all really giving each the same amount of consideration? 

The veterinary profession is well established in caring for the physical health needs of our animals and most owners would be confident in seeking their advice if their pet was unwell.  It is well recognised and accepted that if an animal is unwell or in pain, welfare is compromised and this will always need to be addressed first.  It also impacts on the behavioural and psychological state which cannot be good if the physical state is impaired.  This area of welfare is well provided for where owners are caring and responsible.

The behavioural state refers to the natural behaviour the animal would display.  Where animals are not able to express normal behaviour, stress, frustration and depression are likely.  In domesticated or captive animals, this will always be an area of concern as the owner controls most of the aspects of the animal’s life and required resources.  Dogs, which are probably the most adapted to live within human society, can still suffer from inadequacies in this area, though it should also be possible to meet their needs.  Many behaviour cases in cats are due to their natural behaviour as solitary hunters not being understood and their unique relationship in their need to control their resources being restricted.  The accepted husbandry of horses is very unnatural and keeping roaming, herd animals isolated in small boxes is not conducive to a good behavioural state.  But exotic animals are probably the animals whose husbandry needs are commonly least well met due to many owners not being fully aware of their requirements.  Where vets would clearly be able to advice in these areas, the amount of time needed for a full review and required to influence owner change is not always possible in a short consult and may be missed or dealt with inadequately as the vet prioritises physical health requirements. 

The psychological state is clearly dependent on the above two states being adequately cared for.  However, whilst the physical and behavioural state will ensure the animal has everything it needs, it is the psychological state that will ensure good quality of life and joy in living.  Where the psychological state is compromised, it will often be expressed as behaviour problems which can become very challenging for the owner.  This can lead to further break down in their relationship and further loss of quality of life.  Many owners feel guilty and embarrassed by their animals behaviour and the old saying ‘No bad dogs only bad owners’ can make it hard for them to admit they are having problems as many feel they have failed and will be judged.  Addressing behaviour problems in animals can be as emotionally distressing to the owners as it is for the animals.  Most owners are very committed to their animals and just want them to be happy, but can find this a much more daunting area to seek help.  They may be faced with a vast amount of contradictory advice and do not know where or if reliable help is available.  This can also be an issue for vets, as Behaviourists are unregulated and therefore finding a suitably qualified and experienced one that will be effective and compassionate can be difficult and lead to loss of confidence. 

Behaviour work is about improving emotional welfare and enhancing the relationship between the pet and owner, leading to better quality of life for both.  There will always be conflicts of expectations when two different species live closely together, but finding a compromise that works for both, without leaving either stressed or frustrated, should normally be possible – if it wasn’t, owning pets would not be so popular!  Most behaviour issues are multi-faceted; they have many contributory causes that may be expressed in multiple, inter-related ways.  Therefore it is important to take a detailed history to ensure all factors are identified.  A behaviour modification plan can then be devised to address the causes and hence change the behaviour.  Whilst this is hierarchical in that if the bottom tiers are not addressed the top tiers will be less effective, often they can be worked through simultaneously, ensuring the final result is bigger than the component parts. 

Hierarchy of Behaviour Modification

  • Meet Basic Needs - All behaviour assessment must start with ensuring there are no underlying medical concerns.  Animals should then have appropriate diet, exercise, social interaction, husbandry and ability to express normal behaviour, as indicated by their species. 
  • General Stress Reduction - Stress is often a primary cause in many behaviour problems, but equally where there are behaviour problems, animals and owners will often experience increased stress due to the conflicts that also arise.  Emotions are cumulative and therefore everything possible should be done to reduce general stress to ensure the animal is in the best mental state to be able to engage with other behaviour modification techniques.
  • Management and Trainingwhen working with behaviour case, it is important to put in place appropriate management to ensure everyone’s safety, reduce or prevent exposure to triggers and further practising of unwanted behaviour and ensure the environment is conducive to good behaviour and adaptive learning.
    Where animals, such as dogs, are trainable, consideration should be given to whether further training would be beneficial in helping control or address problems.Behaviour problems are usually driven by the emotional state of the animal so training alone would only address the signs and not the cause, so should not be seen as a fix, but can be helpful in enabling emotional change to take place.Training can be useful where behaviour is conditioned or where an alternative response needs to be taught.
  • Change Emotional Drivers - This is where the cause of the behaviour problem is directly addressed, however, to give this the best chance of success; the underpinning foundation work should be in place.  Classical conditioning techniques such as systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning can then be used to help the animal be better able to cope in situations they previously found difficult, ultimately resulting in a behaviour change. 

Most owners accept they will need to make accommodations for their animals needs but know they will also benefit from the emotional enrichment they can provide to our lives.  Better understanding of why animals behave the way they do can make owners more empathetic towards them and usually there are simple changes in management which can have a big, positive impact on how they live and interact together.  However, it is often the animal’s emotional response to a situation which is driving the unwanted behaviour, most commonly anxiety.  Changing the emotional state can be a longer term undertaking and there are not usually quick fixes in getting a full and permanent modification to behaviour; owners must be committed to working with their animals over time to see the benefits.  In some cases a complete cure is not be a realistic goal, but some improvement is nearly always possible.  The emotional state is the key area of focus for a behaviourist and it is the impact they can have here that can result in much better welfare for both the animal and the owner and restore a positive relationship and quality of life.  

Vets are committed to welfare and are not unaware of behaviour, but it is not always possible to consider when working under time constraints, where they need to remain focussed on the presenting complaint.  Unless vets have a particular interest in behaviour, identifying and addressing behaviour problems may not be a priority and seem beyond the time and resources allocated to them in a consult.  However a few simple observations and questions may be able to identify issues and if this became routine, more behaviour cases could be helped.  Most owners trust their vets so this is the ideal place to start to address behaviour problems.  In addition to needing to ensure physical health is good first, vets are then well placed to reassure and encourage the owner that things can be done to address the behaviour and refer them to a professional, qualified behaviourist.  A behaviour consult typically takes 2-3 hours and is conducted in the animal’s home.  This allows time to explore and analyse behavioural and emotional components in far more depth than would ever be possible in a 15 minute consult at the clinic.  In this way, where vets and behaviourist s work closely together, we can ensure that all three components of animal welfare are addressed and improved for all the animals we work with. 

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